Cubs

Bulls feel better prepared for this postseason

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Bulls feel better prepared for this postseason

The regular season is in the books and the Bulls will at least share a piece of the best record in this shortened season and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Its been a different year for all 30 teams throughout the league, but even with some concerns going into the postseason regarding the health of reigning MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls feel they are better equipped for this postseason run as opposed to last season.

We have more scoring this year, said Tom Thibodeau. Last year, Derrick, we really relied heavily on his scoring to give ourselves a good chance to win. This year, Derrick doesnt have to score like that. We have a number of guys who can score the ball. Its a more balanced attack. Having six guys who can score in double figures helps a lot.

Probably the biggest difference from last year is we had guys up front that were coming off of injury and now our guys up front have been healthy all year. The injuries have been to the guys in the backcourt. Our bench has been great all season long. I think Derrick is feeling, probably, better than he has in a long time, so thats a big plus and Rip Hamilton has gotten his legs under him. We just have to be ready to go.

It seems almost every one of the 14 players on the roster has stepped up at some point during the season when someone was injured. No matter if it was Rose, Deng or Hamilton, the depth of the team truly shined when it was most needed.

It just shows that our coaching staff and organization put a core group together where 1 through 14 can flat-out play, said John Lucas III. "Everybody has confidence and one thing about this team is we all have each others back.

"Nobody gets down; we all want to see each other succeed. We have great chemistry. Mentally, were right there and now its time. Now the season really starts. Were excited and we feel like we have unfinished business to attend to.

Fifty wins in a 66 game season is very impressive, but as last year showed, the leagues best record doesnt mean anything when everybody goes back to 0-0.

Theres also the fact that their Bulls' starting lineup has only played in just 15 games together, which may or may not have a significant impact at some point during the postseason.

I think weve played well enough to do well in the playoffs, said Carlos Boozer. Our chemistry is very good and I think we been able to use our practices to come along and get over the hump on having guys out.

"We had a couple of different guys out at different times, but we been able to play through it because we practice well and were a deep team, so it worked out good.

All eyes are sure to be on Rose when the postseason starts as many will look to see some form of the offensive dominance he displayed last postseason, but this year, the feeling within the Bulls locker room is he doesnt have to be that player.

Were so much spread out now, said Boozer. Obviously, hes our closer and our MVP, but were so deep. We have four or five other guys who can get you 20 points on a given night. Weve been able to gel with him and surround him with a lot of talent and a lot of players who can score the ball. Then when the game is on the line, you know where the ball is going and he comes through for us time and time again.

Hes not 100 percent but hes going to play with everything that he has and its a lot better than other guys have. Well take that.

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

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USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox are rebuilt.

No, the rebuild isn’t officially over. You’ll have to wait for after the parade for that. And it’s true that there are plenty of question marks on this roster.

But for the first time in a long time, the White Sox are preparing for a season with expectations. Big ones. The manager set them early, saying he’d be disappointed if his squad didn’t reach the postseason. There hasn’t been October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade. But that’s not stopping anyone in silver and black from realizing that things are different now.

“It’s definitely a little different,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s more relaxed and we know what we want. We know what we want this spring training versus last spring training. We kind of knew what we wanted, but now we know what we want and we see it. We just have to put the work in and go get it.

“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes. Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”

Everyone at Camelback Ranch is talking about expectations. And whether they’ve voiced their intent to just play better baseball, make the playoffs or win the World Series, there’s one common conclusion: It’s time to win.

The losing has not been fun during the last three rebuilding seasons. The White Sox lost a combined 284 games in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with contending often taking a backseat to development in anticipation of the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

But a host of breakout campaigns from young, core players in 2019 laid the groundwork for Rick Hahn’s front office to make a slew of veteran additions this winter, adding to that core All-Stars like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez.

It all adds up to realistic postseason expectations on the South Side. And a feeling that those losing days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.

“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.

“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”

Certainly Abreu would love to experience that. He hasn’t been a part of a winning team in his major league career, part of six sub-.500 seasons on the South Side. But his love for the organization kept him in a White Sox uniform as he briefly hit free agency this winter. He’ll be wearing those colors for at least another three years thanks to a new deal. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he never wears any others.

But you don’t have to have sweltered through the dog days of this rebuild to express your excitement for 2020. Something had to lure all those free agents this winter. Grandal, Keuchel, Encarnacion, Gonzalez, they all liked what they saw. Now they’re a big part of why there is such electricity running through White Sox camp.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come now,” he said. “I look at it now as, let's keep competing as much as we can and see it from there. The buzz is in the locker room. We are excited. We do want to play, and I think this is the year we're going to push for it.

“They went out and got some guys that wanted to make something happen this year, and I think we have the team to do it. If you’re someone in Chicago watching the White Sox, this is a team to watch, and we’re excited to see that we can put it together.”

It truly does seem that Hahn’s front office did go out and get everything that was missing from this roster, which featured as impressive a collection of young talent as you’ll find but lacked experience, especially winning experience. Even 33-year-old team leader Abreu has never played in the postseason.

Enter the newcomers. Grandal and Encarnacion have appeared in each of the last five postseasons. Keuchel’s been to the playoffs in four of the last five years. Gonzalez played in three of the last four postseasons. New reliever Steve Cishek went to the NL wild card game with the Cubs in 2018.

They have no plans of stopping those streaks.

“Once you get a little taste of the playoffs, that's why you play, is to get that feeling,” Keuchel said. “As much as you want to replicate it in the regular season, for guys who have no playoff experience, I think the regular season is that feeling. But there's another feeling to it that pushes you and wants you to be a better player.

“I told Rick Hahn this, I said four out of the last five years I've made the playoffs, and I don't expect any of these three years (during his contract with the White Sox) to be any different.”

A lot of things will have to go right for the White Sox to make a rapid ascent to the top of the baseball mountain. As mentioned, there are question marks. What will the team get from Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez a year after some ugly results? Will Michael Kopech be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery? What will Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal do in their first tastes of the major leagues? Will Anderson and Yoan Moncada stay productive if their good luck diminishes? Will Nomar Mazara unlock the potential the White Sox see in their new right fielder?

It all has to work out for the White Sox to compete for the division title and a World Series championship. But isn’t that the case with every team?

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Viewing the upcoming season through rose-colored glasses is a February tradition on par with Presidents Day mattress sales.

But the White Sox have good reason to be excited, good reason to be talking playoffs for the first time in so long. That light at the end of the tunnel that Hahn has been talking about for a while now isn’t just visible. It’s bathing these young White Sox.

Of course, they have to prove they can do it. But all this talk? Don’t roll your eyes. It’s not at all crazy.

The White Sox are saving the crazy for the field.

“We have a chance to do something crazy,” Anderson said. “That’s what everybody is talking about, right? So why not own up to it and set the bar high, go to the playoffs and win the championship. That’s the goal, right?

“We didn’t come here to work for nothing. We come here to win championships and make it to the playoffs. That’s no secret. Everybody knows we are here to win championships.”

It’s time to get nuts.

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